CAN GROUP DYNAMICS KILL INNOVATION?
- March 4, 2011CAN GROUP DYNAMICS KILL INNOVATION?Diane Jermyn
Toronto-Julie Mitchell’s favourite brainstorm was to come up with a name for a line of breast accessories – products inserted into a bra to make breasts look larger or to cover nipples if they show through an evening gown. Not only was the session fun, but the team came up with “Flaunt,” a name that captured the brand’s playful spirit. Even better, they did so during their first session.
“We like to keep brainstorming spontaneous,” says Ms. Mitchell, president of Parcel Design, a Toronto branding and design agency that regularly uses group brainstorming. “We think about brainstorming as the step before solving the problem. It’s about getting every possible avenue out on the table, but we’re clear that we’re not looking for a solution yet, so there’s no pressure. It’s just generating ideas.”
Her approach is at odds with recent research out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania that argues group dynamics don’t generate the best ideas. In a corporate environment, a free flowing model – where individuals are expected to contribute ideas on the spot – may not work. The problem is hierarchy: Participants want to please the leader in the room, a phenomenon the Wharton researchers call “the boss is always right”.
“Preserving the office politics in the office hierarchy can get in the way of brainstorming,” says Rebecca Reuber, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “How effective it will be depends on the culture of that corporate environment – how free people are to go out on a limb and suggest crazy ideas.”
If you let the junior person lead off, he or she will be nervous because they don’t know what everyone else is going to say – so they probably won’t say anything risky, says Dr. Reuber. One solution, she says, is to send the ideas to a neutral third-party facilitator, who cuts and pastes them anonymously and sends them around to everybody.
“Then you can feed off those ideas,” she says.
This kind of hybrid process got the best results for the Wharton researchers. They found that when people brainstormed on their own before discussing ideas with their peers, it resulted in more and better ideas than a purely team oriented process. While other studies have criticized team brainstorming, the Wharton researchers believe that their focus on the quality of ideas – that getting one or two exceptional ideas is really what innovation is all about – sets theirs apart.
Some firms use different techniques, depending on the size of the group and the nature of the project. Paddy Harrington, chief creative director at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, says that when his company works with a subject that everyone would be generally familiar with, such as neighbourhood parks, they don’t give the participants information beforehand. But if the subject is focused or specialized, “then we’d ask people to prepare beforehand because you’re just going to get better results.”
Mr. Harrington is also sensitive to the politics among some clients. “If people aren’t comfortable about sharing, a lot of ideas and diverse viewpoints in the room are lost because they’re are afraid to speak up,” says Mr. Harrington.
But expecting people to brainstorm on their own at the start doesn’t make sense to Ms. Mitchell, who allows for individual reflection later in the process.
Full Article in Globe & Mail
Paddy Harrington in the Globe and mail